Colorful Map Shows L.A. as a Patchwork of Rancho-Era Land Grants

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Los Angeles County commissioned this 1888 map for a mundane reason—to record property holdings—but the result was an eye-catching, colorful artifact that seems to depict a land of dueling principalities.


And for a while, it was. Beginning in 1784, first Spain and then Mexico carved the Southland into vast tracts of land, or ranchos, that authorities used to reward California's leading citizens and soldiers. These lucky rancheros then became virtual princes, ruling over their fiefs (and armies of Indian laborers) from an adobe ranch house.

But by the time V. J. Rowan made this map in 1888, that much-romanticized era had long since passed. After the American conquest of California in 1847, many grantees struggled to hold on to these ranchos as U.S. tax law and a cumbersome title-confirmation process forced them to sell or mortgage their vast estates.

Still, the old land grants continued to exert their influence even as ownership changed hands and the old cattle-raising operations faded into history—which is why Rowan highlighted them so prominently in his map. Rancho borders influenced the orientation of street grids as the their new owners subdivided the land to form new towns, and many of their names—Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica, Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, Rancho Santa Anita—survive today as the names of cities or streets.

Amid all these irregularly shaped ranchos, a rectangular land grant (shaded in orange) stands out. These are the original pueblo lands of Los Angeles—four square Spanish leagues centered on the pueblo's historic plaza. Granted to the pueblo upon its 1781 founding, these lands defined L.A.'s original city limits when it incorporated under U.S. law in 1850. (Another map tracks the annexations and consolidations that gave L.A. its sprawling city limits of today.)

Keen eyes will notice one more important detail: the Los Angeles County depicted here extends far to the south beyond its current borders. That's because the agricultural towns of the county's southern reaches—Anaheim, Santa Ana, Tustin—were still in middle of a messy divorce that one year later, in 1889, would create Orange County. [Library of Congress]